Directed, written, produced and edited by Emily Kunstler & Sarah Kunstler.
At first glance, nothing seems exceptional about this documentary. Two young women make a movie about their famous father, civil rights attorney William Kunstler. They load it with talking-head interviews and archival news footage, then personalize with Emily’s voice over to string the threads together. At first glance, that is until the Kunstler sisters do something amazing ten minutes in: they lay bare their own disillusionment with their father. Of course they want to love William Kunstler, because he is their father and because he is a respected and storied defense lawyer, but Sarah was born in 1975 and Emily in ’77. By the time they were at an age to understand what William did for a living, he was defending an alleged drug dealer who had shot six police officers in the Bronx, the “wilding gang” in the Central Park Jogger rape case, and the Teflon Don: John Gotti.
Structuring their story this way was a brave gamble that pays off brilliantly. Brave because it risks alienating a large segment of the audience early by focusing first on Kunstler’s less celebrated, tabloid-fodder cases. Brilliant because it sets up parallel stories of Emily and Sarah’s discovery of their father, and of William’s own – for lack of a better word – redemption.
I was aware of William Kunstler’s defense of the Chicago 8 and members of the American Indian Movement. I fully expected to be confronted with these cases within the first few minutes in a misty “look how great our father is/was” montage. Instead Emily tells us that at times she felt punished as a child, unable to leave her family’s Manhattan home. We see protesters on their doorstep screaming that their father “has to go!” This shows faith in the sisters audience that we will hear them out to their conclusion. As we follow Emily and Sarah seeking William’s voice from those who had known the earlier man in his most embattled years, we come to understand that William’s career was built on giving a voice to people that many in society did not want to hear from.
The major criticism I have encountered of DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE is that too many of the interviews are of friends and admirers of William Kunstler. Where are his enemies and detractors, some say? While that is a valid point for a longer film, the Kunstler sisters make yet another impressive decision when they show us Alan Dershowitz (a friend and colleague of their father) recoiling at some of the people Kunstler defended in his later life. It is far more telling that the man who defended Claus Von Bulow says he is uncomfortable with the professional line Kunstler crossed than it is to show prosecutors licking their wounds. In the final analysis, this movie is not so concerned with whether or not you like William Kunstler as it is with asking who among us would retain the courage of our convictions against the challenges that Kunstler met again and again.